A New Leaf (1971)

Viewed May 29th

 

When a selfish bachelor accustomed to the finer things in life learns he's run out of money, he hatches a plan to marry a klutzy botanist heiress.

In the wake of her legendary comedy partner Mike Nichols' smash success with The Graduate, Elaine May had grand ambitions for her own directorial debut. So when the studio took control over A New Leaf, considerably slicing down its original 180 minute runtime, she was so furious she sued to have her name removed from the credits. On the one hand, this seems rash. The surviving film is often often hilarious and oddly touching. And, yet, you can see where she's coming from. In its truncated form, we're given a very strong, very funny first half, mostly centered on Walter Matthau's portrayal of the outrageous bachelor. But the second half--the half in which May's own character is supposed to shine--is skittish and unmoored. I believe the idea was that her character is supposed to feel so beguilingly consistent and true to herself, so unendingly sincere and dogged in her love, that Matthau--who'd never considered that someone could actually love him--is gradually charmed to the point that he "turns over a new leaf" from murderous asshole to fiscally-responsible history teacher. But this doesn't really feel like what you end up watching. She doesn't feel consistent...more flat. The richness of the cinematic world ends up being drained away and the film can't achieve the status of a classic. You have to feel for May. It was a man, Robert Evans, who took this film from her...And yet, there are still so many good, original moments that still feel fresh as comedy. And so many images. May is a unique looking woman, strikingly beautiful in her way. When we first see her in closeup, it will take the breath away from a certain type of man. And in the end, despite everything, you might see in the goofily happy final moments of union between Matthau and May the vision she had for the film.